When you hear someone use this expression you intuitively understand from the context what is being said, although you probably feel like you’re missing the reference to something featuring dogs and ponies. You’re not alone. Here is what you should know.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s a dog and pony show was a type of traveling circus featuring, you guessed it, performing dogs and ponies, as well as monkeys and other highly trained animals. The art form hit its peak with Henry B. Gentry, an ambitious showman and skilled animal trainer who created “Prof. Gentry’s Famous Dog and Pony Show”. The show was a national hit and by the turn of the century he had four simultaneous traveling shows. His success spawned a new industry in traveling animal shows that lasted up to the Great Depression.
Traveling dog and pony shows no longer exist today. The term has come to mean an elaborately staged, highly promoted presentation or event meant to sway opinion. The use of the phrase suggests a lack of trust for the message and those who present it. Political campaigning events, for example, are often referred to as dog and pony shows. It’s likely that the negative usage derives from the fact that dog and pony shows were small-time compared to full-blown circuses, so organizers had to over-promote and exaggerate to get attention. In the culture of the early 20th century, if you had seen dog and pony shows coming through your town, you would understand the snarky undertones in referring to an event as a “dog and pony show”. The colloquialism lives on, even if the shows don’t.